In 1973, Arthur Rubinstein published “My Young Years,” the first of two volumes of his memoirs. The great pianist had led a mostly charmed life and was nearing the end of a phenomenally successful career. His memoir is basically a victory lap: Most of its 500-plus pages are devoted to posh dinners, rapturous audiences, and an endless catalog of love affairs. The musical content is minimal.
I thought about “My Young Years” while reading “Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons,” Jeremy Denk’s newly published memoir of his own journey to becoming a pianist. Even accounting for a half-century of changes in literary style, the disparity between the two books could not be more stark. Rubinstein seems to have treated the opportunity to tell his life story as another act of noblesse oblige, giving an adoring public what it wants. Denk, by contrast, has thought deeply and creatively about what a memoir is, and how to write it. By turns hilarious, original, and painfully revealing, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” is both an open-hearted coming-of-age story and a meditation on music’s inner secrets.
Denk, who will give two performances of Book I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier at GBH Calderwood Studio next weekend, is a dizzyingly inventive writer — as fans who’ve followed his blog Think Denk or read his essays for the New York Times and the New Yorker already know. That inventiveness is evident in the book’s conceit — its use of the piano lesson as the vehicle with which to tell his story.
Many of us who’ve learned to play an instrument will remember our lessons as regularly scheduled torture sessions, during which time we learned how badly we missed the mark over a week of practicing. But for Denk, the swirl of frustration and enlightenment that lessons impart is what makes them magical. “The truest realizations aren’t at the peak of the climb,” he writes. They lie, instead, in “passing back down the old, same steps,” and in “how time seems to stop, or even go in reverse, when you are learning.”
Denk writes frankly about a difficult childhood and a fraught relationship with his parents, each of whom had their own demons. (His mother, in particular, struggled with alcoholism and anxiety.) He was a prodigy, with an obvious early talent, but he’s as candid (sometimes more so) about his failures and struggles to make good on his gifts as he is about the string of achievements that led him to Oberlin, Indiana University, Juilliard, and, at book’s end, to the threshold of a major career.
“I didn’t think I could really write the book in another way,” Denk said recently by phone from his apartment in New York. “I wanted to write a book that captured the trying reality of a real music education, which has got so many wonderful moments, and also false starts and weird, dead ends. I had so many teachers that they were essentially arguing in my head all the time.
“But I wanted to write about that uncertainty,” he continued, “because that’s such a crucial part of what makes musical interpretation beautiful and important.”
Writing the book was a long and often uneasy process. Collecting and recollecting the memories — teacher by teacher, challenge by challenge — was elating and shattering by turn, he said. At some moments, he would find himself “giggling over some particularly mean thing some teacher had said.” At others, “I was basically in tears writing these things down. But you know, when playing the piano becomes so much a part of who you are, it’s no wonder that these lessons would be such an emotional third-rail situation.”
He found it challenging to summon the kind of vulnerability the book demanded while he was also performing. “Playing in public, you have to cultivate a kind of impervious quality: ‘I know exactly how this piece goes, and I’m just gonna nail the crap out of it,’” he explained. “You have to shed some of the things that, as a writer, you really want to bathe in.”
One of the through-lines of Denk’s book is his struggle to acknowledge being gay. Another is what he called “these weird interactions between musical developments and personal developments.” Both come together in a particularly memorable scene in which, after a good amount of drinking, he spends the night with a guy in Brooklyn and awakens the next morning, hungover but experiencing a new kind of beauty in the world. Amid this languorous rapture, Denk realizes he’s forgotten that he has to play for Mitsuko Uchida, one of the world’s great pianists, in two hours.
At a concert later that afternoon, he hears Richard Goode, another legendary pianist, hesitate ever so briefly over a passage in a Schumann piano trio. The delicacy of that rubato, he realizes, is the same as the ecstasy he’s felt since waking up. “Some beautiful things make you want to rush into them,” he writes, “while others make you want to hold off, as if beauty were a pool you were testing with your toes.”
“That seemed like such an amazing moment of, here I was, in the throes of this personal thing,” he said during our interview. “And music suddenly rears its head, and I’m trying to explain to Mitsuko and Richard Goode these ecstatic musical ideas that I’m having, which has everything to do with the sexual experiment that I had the night before. It seemed very funny, and it was also absolutely true.”
I asked Denk whether the act of writing “Every Good Boy” had made him a different musician.
“I think it’s possible it has,” he said. “And it’s definitely affected the way that I practice. I have all those teachers’ voices in my head again. And I hope that I’ve discharged a debt, kind of given a little bit back to them for all they did. It’s incomprehensible, looking back, the patience that my teachers had with me. So it feels like I’ve done something in return.”
At GBH Calderwood Studio, April 2 and 3. Tickets $55-$75 (in person), $20 (digital). 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org